The Four Types of Leaders
The Right Leadership
Books and articles about leadership are often too generic. We encourage leadership, we talk about the qualities of a great leader, but we fail to recognize that there are different types of leadership and that we want to apply the right type of leadership to each situation.
In 1932, the Olympic hockey team from India appealed to Mahatma Gandhi, asking if they could use his name to get support and funding to go to the Olympics. Gandhi replied, "What is hockey?" Gandhi was a great national leader, but he would have made a terrible hockey coach!
Let's have a bit of fun exploring different types of leadership and the situations in which each type of leader serves best.
Four Goals That Call for Leadership
These four goals call for four different types of leadership:
- Innovation: Creating something new
- Conflict resolution: Peacemaking to create cooperation
- Pushing through: Managing in difficult times
- Problem solving: Creating solutions for complicated situations
A company or organization requires visionary leadership when it is just opening or going through major change. It requires a peacemaker in times of conflict. It requires a stable hand at the tiller when pushing through, and it requires a careful thinker when problems are key.
This does not mean that there needs to be a change of leadership. These four leadership qualities are in each and every person, to different degrees. Once we understand these personal qualities, we can bring them forth and use them to lead to success.
The DISC System
Four Personal Qualities
Some people work best with people; others focus on ideas.
Some people decide things very quickly; others take their time and think things through.
It is not better to be fast than slow or to be a people-person rather than an idea person. The truth is that all four qualities are beneficial. And, when it comes to leadership, they are beneficial in different situations.
These two axes—people-person vs. idea person; and fast decider vs. slow decider—are the basis of a personality typing system called DISC, as illustrated in the table above. DISC is an acronym for the four personality types:
- Dominant: These people decide things fast and focus on ideas. As leaders, they are visionary.
- Influencing: These people decide things fast and focus on people. As leaders, they can be peacemakers.
- Steady: These folks take things more slowly, and focus on people. They can lead a company or nation through challenging times.
- Cooperative: These folks decide slowly, and focus on information. We want them in charge when the company faces complicated problems.
In the DISC system, people are generally seen to have one or two of the four qualities. But, with self-awareness, we can develop leadership talents beyond our original capabilities. Or, we can develop a leadership team with all four qualities.
Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric From 1981 to 2001
The classic American CEOs tend to have the Dominant personality type, and perhaps no one illustrates this better than Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001. He presented a simple, clear vision: Each division of GE would be #1 or #2 in its industry. Divisions that could not achieve that were shut down or sold. Executives and employees who achieved those results were rewarded with bonuses and stock options. And the bottom 10% of managers were fired each year.
Jack Welch's direct, clear, sometimes brutal management style increased GE's financial value by a factor of 40 in 20 years. This directness is a typical quality of dominant personality types. They do well when they make clear rules and people know what it takes to shape up before they ship out. When they are arbitrary and dictatorial, they can be very destructive.
Americans find it easy to admire such direct power. But we actually rely on other types of power to pick up the pieces when this directness fails us. One thing everyone would agree on: Jack Welch was not a peacemaker.
President Jimmy Carter
For most Presidents of the United States, the Presidency was the pinnacle of their career. Not so for Jimmy Carter, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, over 20 years after he left the presidency in 1981. Perhaps his most significant accomplishments were: the creation of the Camp David Accords, ending 30 years of war between Egypt and Israel in 1979; creating a peace that has now lasted 33 years; and the Agreed Framework arrangement which calmed hostilities between the United States and North Korea, reducing the likelihood of a nuclear war that could have expanded to include China.
I reflect on Jimmy Carter with gratitude. His finest qualities are all expressions of concern for people. He has worked endlessly for civil rights and human rights, in the US and worldwide. Even on controversial issues like abortion, he takes a non-controversial, humanitarian stance.
Some models encourage a blend of vision and peacemaking in which the visionary leader empowers the whole team.
Managing in Difficult Times
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England who defended the British Empire against Hitler and Nazi Germany, is the leader most renowned for leading a nation through difficult times. In his own words, he led England through the time that would be remembered as "its finest hour." His quotes on enduring through difficulty to victory speak for themselves:
- Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential.
- Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities... because it is the quality which guarantees all others.
- Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.
His whole career reflects the slow nature of leaders who are best in difficult times. He was already a leader in the British government and military before World War I. He was cast aside and largely powerless many of the years between the wars. His personal endurance in the political realm inspired the heart of an empire in the Battle of Britain.
Gordon Bethune, CEO of Continental Airlines
Gordon Bethune became CEO of Continental Airlines from 1994 as it was plunging towards its third, and probably final, bankruptcy. In the 10 years before his appointment, Continental had been led by 10 CEOs, all of whom had failed. Most of them were bean counters - Chief Financial Officers promoted to CEO to deal with what were seen as financial problems.
Bethune began his career working on airplane maintenance in the Navy. If you think about that, it is an interesting job. It requires attention to detail, and slow action related to things and data. But the lives of fighter pilots and the success of military missions depend on consistent, high-quality work. This training prepared Gordon Bethune to save an airline when no one else could.
He turned attention away from penny-pinching and on to customer service. In the first five years of his leadership, Continental went from being the worst airline in the US (according to FAA statistics) to being the best. And it won the J. D. Powers best airline of the year award 4 years out of five when no other airline had ever won it two years in a row.
(I could not find an image of Gordon Bethune with rights permissions appropriate to this article.)
Leadership in Life and Work
Many situations call for leadership. In personal life:
- Innovative leadership can be great for a life change, such as a move to a new city or the birth of a child.
- Perhaps we would have fewer divorces if more husbands and wives were good at conflict resolution.
- Pushing through is a leadership skill many of us need these days, especially during times of unemployment.
- Problem-solving is a big part of parenting, and also important as we move past unemployment and create a new career.
In business, we also need all four types of leaders:
- Innovation is key for startup companies and companies that develop cutting-edge technology.
- Peacemakers are essential when a company faces conflicts with unions or after a merger.
- Pushing through is essential for once-stable companies in a declining economy, especially if they want to persist to become successful in a mature market as other companies go out of business.
- Problem-solving is an essential leadership skill in businesses that have many moving parts and need a successful turnaround.
Which type of leadership do you need in your life or business?
Becoming the Right Type of Leader
Most experts on DISC will tell you that your core personality, or character type, is formed by the age of 8, and can't be changed.
I've found that that is not true. And good thing, too, because, in the course of our lives and the life of our businesses, we're going to run into times that call for all four types of leadership: Sometimes, we start new things (innovate); Sometimes, we need to be peacemakers; Situations come where things are stuck, and we have to push through for the long haul; And sometimes things get complicated, and we've got to work out our problems.
I've made this change happen in my own life. I've been tested and re-tested using a professional DISC profile, and I've moved from a pure Dominant to a Dominant-Influencer blend.
And I can get down into the details of technical problems in project management, or in crafts such as photography. I'm weakest at the slow Influencer work - don't put me on a committee - but I can handle it if I have to. As a coach, I'm getting better and better at working with people who think things through slowly.
If you need to change your leadership style, what can you do?
- Start with self-awareness. Ask yourself if you are fast or slow in making decisions, and if you enjoy working more with people or being alone, and working with things and data. (Note: Some people live one type at work, and another one at home or when relaxing. So be sure to be specific about the situation that calls for leadership.) You can also take a DISC profile test.
- Ask which of the four types of leader is needed in this situation: Dominant innovator; Influencing peacemaker; Steady pushing through; or Cooperative problem-solving.
- If you're already the right type of leader for the job, then great. But check your analysis: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Be sure you're not biased by your own view. You might ask yourself: If I could call in someone else to take care of this problem, who would I call? Jack Welch, Jimmy Carter, Winston Churchill, or Gordon Bethune?
- If a different type of leader is called for, but the job is in your hands, decide what changes are needed. Do you need to speed up, or slow down? Do you need to deal more with people, or more face the facts?
- Picture the type of skill required. For example, if problem-solving is called for, try to think like an engineer. If peacemaking is called for, learn to be a really good listener, and hold your own opinion until last.
Each of us can call forth the inner qualities of leadership that our life situation or business challenge calls for.
Or we have another option: We can build a leadership team.
Successful Leaders Have a Team
Every problem actually needs all four of the skills in the DISC spectrum. Suppose, for example, your company needs a new presence on Social Media:
- Innovative design is key to cutting-edge success on the Internet
- Influencing customers to buy is the whole purpose of the venture
- Pushing through unreliable systems and web tools and updates at Facebook and Google is essential.
- Problem-solving is required in dozens of different ways.
This is why it is so hard to run a one-person company. It's difficult, but it is possible.
Examples of Teams
The other solution is to build a team. In fact, the leaders we mentioned did that:
- The success of GE didn't depend on Jack Welch alone. Gary C. Wendt ran GE Capital and Robert C. Wright ran the NBC television network. Both contributed major financial success to GE.
- Jimmy Carter called on the experts at the Harvard Negotiation Project to design the Camp David summit that led to the peace accords.
- Winston Churchill had the deep support of the entire British government and all its citizens. He even got help from political opponents like Mahatma Gandhi, who stopped pressing for Indian independence until the war was over.
- Gordon Bethune succeeded largely by cultivating cooperative teamwork, as described in his biography of the Continental turnaround, From Worst to First.
Whatever leadership challenge you are facing, think about the problem that needs to be solved, and the race that needs to be run, and the victory in front of you, and assign people with the proper skills and personality to the task at hand.
An attentive leader and a committed team are unstoppable.
Women in Leadership
After I wrote this article, a guest commented on an oversight of mine: I had only included men!
Well, I've taken care of that now. In Women in Leadership: The Four Types of Leaders, I profile women leaders in science, government, society, and advancing global society.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.